The Māori believe that those who work the land are merely kaitiaki — guardians or caretakers for those who follow. The winemakers, farmers, chefs and fishermen who have centered their lives around the land and sea in New Zealand’s Wairarapa region are taking exceptional care of this remarkable slice of the island, which dramatically ranges from picturesque vineyards to wide-open spaces, sleepy fishing villages to wild beaches. While Wairarapa is just an hour’s drive from Wellington, it feels like a far-flung destination — and a relatively undiscovered one at that.
The area’s crown jewel is its main town, Martinborough, which has a growing global reputation for its wines, as well as its unique tasting experience. Marlborough might get all the attention in the wine world, but we’ll take Martinborough any day: Home to about fifty wineries, here you can walk or bike from one family-owned tasting room to the next. (Try that in Saint-Emilion or Mendoza.) The first vineyards were planted in the 1980s by pioneers who identified the potential of Martinborough’s stony river terraces and its microclimate — which happens to be the same distance from the equator as Burgundy — forever changing the course of this once drab rural town. It became renowned as a pinot noir stronghold, with a global reputation in New World wine.
There might be a few swish additions to the town, but it’s still very much a hub for Wairarapa’s farming community. It’s the perfect base for exploring this breathtaking region. Here’s how to take advantage.
The Colonial Dame
The grande dame of the village, the colonial-style Martinborough Hotel sits near the main gates of The Square, making it perfect both for exploring and people-watching. Built in the 1880s, the hotel’s 20 rooms were recently refreshed with modern palettes, and the bistro and bar, Union Square, is a reliable choice.
The Micro Region
The magic of Martinborough is just how compact it is for a wine area. Leisurely pedaling your way from vineyard to vineyard is ideal, with bike rentals easily available. The town offers a mix of established vineyards and one-man-bands, the kind of places where you can chat with the winemaker while tasting.The area is best known for its celebrated pinot noirs, with their spicy aromatics and ripe, darker fruit flavors thanks to the warm, dry summers, but there are other varietals to love, including riesling, pinot gris and nuanced sauvignon blanc.
Winery lunch options abound. It’s idyllic in the vines at Moy Hall, or try Poppies Martinborough for creative vineyard platters.
The Wild Coastline
The raw beauty, dark sand beaches, rock-fringed bays and often tempestuous seas of Palliser Bay make it feel truly remote. It’s the perfect place to start your coastal exploration — especially if you want to surf, hike or fish.
Driving south into the fishing village of Lake Ferry, you’ll pass weather-beaten baches (the Kiwi term for holiday homes) dotting Lake Onoke, which runs into the unpredictable sea. It’s a popular fishing spot and New Zealand’s revered whitebait run here, so you may see whitebaiters with their nets, hoping to get enough to make fritters. Stop by the local pub for a drink: If you’re lucky, you might get to sample one.
Further on, you’ll reach the fishing village of Ngāwī, where crayfish, another local delicacy, is in the spotlight. From here, it’s a short drive to the exposed coastline of Cape Palliser, where you’ll glimpse the red-and-white lighthouse — the signal that you’ve reached the southernmost part of the North Island. (On a clear day, look across Cook Strait to see ranges in the South Island.) Set on a clifftop of volcanic rock, the cast-iron lighthouse has been showing the way since 1897. The 250 wooden stairs will lead you to the top, where you can catch your breath and take in the sweeping bay.
On this coastal jaunt, you’ll also pass the entrance to the Pūtangirua Pinnacles, one of New Zealand’s most incredible landscapes. Descending the soaring avenues of eroded cliffs with rocks spearing skyward is genuinely otherworldly.
Luxe Farm Life
Rumbling motorbikes, dog whistles and bleating sheep may not be sounds associated with a Relais & Châteaux experience, but that’s the appeal of Wharekauhau Country Estate, a working sheep station. In addition to the plush trappings that New Zealand lodges are renowned for, here you also have the opportunity to experience rural life. The cottage suites overlook fields of sheep grazing right up to the edge of the property, where the cliffs plunge down to Palliser Bay. You can also explore the forests, rivers and lakes by foot, quad runner or in the back of a 4x4.
A private farm escape for two, Whitimanuka Retreat is an off-the-grid, architecturally designed hilltop retreat on a seventh-generation working farm. Situated in the rolling hills of Ponatahi Valley, this super-stylish self-contained retreat is all warm wood, muted colors and comforting textures. The views from every window steal the show, though, including the expansive view of the region from the deck. Stroll through protected bush (look out for birds such as tūī, kererū or fantails), or just watch grazing animals and enjoy the rhythm of farm life.
Dark Sky Reserve
The Wairarapa skies are a pristine environment for stargazing, and plans are underway to have the area certified as the largest International Dark Sky Reserve. Changes such as warm-hued street lights are being implemented across the region to ensure the best environment for appreciating the night sky’s beauty. The outfit Under the Stars offers nomadic astronomy tours, coming to you with binoculars and telescopes, ready to point out the Milky Way, planets and other celestial objects.
Sarah Nicholson is a freelance journalist based in Bay of Plenty, New Zealand. She was formerly editor at Cuisine Magazine.